When Matt Hughes was given a series of options over Thanksgiving weekend for his next move after a back injury put Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight champion Matt Serra on the shelf, he chose the toughest opponent, Georges St. Pierre, who is generally considered the most talented fighter in the world at his weight.
Of course, there was a method to his madness. Hughes, the two-time former champion, figured St. Pierre, who wasn't expected to fight again until April, wouldn't be in top shape. He also pushed for, and got the match as an interim title match on Saturday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas for UFC's final – and arguably biggest – pay-per-view event of 2007. The title stipulation meant five rounds instead of three, where conditioning would play more of a factor.
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But in talking with St. Pierre, you get the indication the usually well-calculated Hughes' attempt to play the percentages may not pay off.
"I had the best training camp of my life," said St. Pierre, 26, who tries to regain the title he lost to Serra on April 7 in Houston, in arguably the biggest surprise in a year full of surprises in the UFC. "Even though I took the fight on short notice, I will be the best Georges St. Pierre ever, the sharpest ever and the strongest ever."
St. Pierre trained with the top wrestlers in Canada, who were peaking for their Olympic trials, two championship-level boxers, as well as bringing people like Rashad Evans and trainer Greg Jackson into his hometown of Montreal for the past few weeks.
Hughes figured St. Pierre would have been resting and taking time off from heavy training, but St. Pierre had been working with Evans to get him ready for his Nov. 17 fight with Michael Bisping, and was in the most intense wrestling training of his life.
St. Pierre said in the back of his mind he was thinking Hughes or Serra could get hurt, and he'd be called to step in, and he was actually training for competition. St. Pierre was seriously considering entering the Canadian Olympic wrestling trials, that took place Dec. 13-16 in Etobicoke, Ont.
In his wrestling training, St. Pierre’s partners had been encouraging him to give the Olympics a go, particularly after he outwrestled Josh Koscheck, a former NCAA Division 1 champion, in his last MMA match on Aug. 25 in Las Vegas, winning a decision. St. Pierre has never competed in wrestling, but has used his wrestling to dominate the takedown aspect of the game with strong wrestlers like Koscheck, Sean Sherk and Frank Trigg in UFC competition. He grew up doing Kyokushin karate, and didn't start wrestling until 2001 when he started switching his attention to MMA, which had a strong local promotion, the UCC (now called TKO), which operated out of Montreal.
In his November 18, 2006, title win over Hughes in Sacramento, Calif., Hughes, a two-time All-American wrestler who has used wrestling as his base to be generally considered the best MMA welterweight fighter in history, was unable to take St. Pierre down. Hughes was dominated standing, en route to be being stopped with a head kick at 1:25 of the second round.
"Everyone underestimates my wrestling ability," St. Pierre said. "I'm not saying I would have won (the Olympic trials), but I think I would have done well in it."
In fact, in the buildup for the Koscheck match, people were in disbelief when St. Pierre claimed ahead of time he was the better wrestler of the two and would prove it in the fight. Based not just on credentials, but on his takedown ability shown in prior fights, Koscheck was considered the best wrestler in the UFC. But St. Pierre exploded with a first-round takedown that shocked almost everyone. And it was winning what was essentially a third-round wrestling battle that clinched his winning the decision that put him next in line after Hughes for the shot at Serra's title. When the fight was over, Koscheck, still in disbelief, said the lesson he learned was that he had to work harder on his wrestling.
"I wasn't that surprised," said Hughes about St. Pierre outwrestling Koscheck in that match. "If they were to go on the mat in a wrestling match, Josh would kill him. But this is mixing of sports and Georges does that very well, and Josh doesn't do it as well."
There has been very little bad blood between the two leading up to the fight, a 180-degree contrast to the previously planned Hughes vs. Serra match.
Given Hughes' combative and competitive personality, that's something of a surprise in the third meeting between the two, with each holding a decisive and relatively quick win.
If there was anything Hughes has said that St. Pierre wanted to respond to, it was the statement that Koscheck would kill him in a wrestling match, as he felt Hughes is one of those people not giving his wrestling the credit it deserves. St. Pierre noted he wouldn't be afraid at all to face Koscheck in a pure wrestling match.
Although he had not discussed the idea with UFC President Dana White, St. Pierre envisioned that if he qualified for the Olympic team, he'd have told White how this publicity could help UFC during an Olympic year. But he said his job and primary goal is being a fighter. When he learned of Serra's injury, he immediately contacted UFC, which was actually thinking in a different direction, figuring St. Pierre wouldn't take the fight on short notice with his guaranteed title shot tentatively scheduled for April.
White had been trying to arrange a show at the Bell Centre in Montreal for more than a year, as St. Pierre headlining the first UFC event in Montreal was the perfect scenario for the first live event in Canada. A St. Pierre vs. Hughes rematch in Montreal was the plan for last spring or summer, but St. Pierre's shocking loss to Serra derailed it.
There was even a plan to do a live HBO special in January from Montreal, which would have been a show without St. Pierre, but that fell through when HBO pulled out of negotiations. Now they are hoping for April, but that debut being a huge success rides on St. Pierre winning on Saturday, as well as the timing of Serra's recovery, as the winner of Saturday's fight will face Serra in a match to determine the outright champion.
A small taste of the Montreal show is likely in the cards for Saturday. Even if everything doesn't go as hoped for, St. Pierre's popularity is such that if UFC doesn't come to Montreal, Montreal is expected this week to come to UFC. At his last fight in Las Vegas, it appeared thousands of fans had made the trek, with St. Pierre getting a reception at the same level as Randy Couture, who was the company's most popular American fighter. There were Canadian flags all over the crowd.
A similar scene is expected this week, as the Mandalay Bay Events Center is already sold out, and a closed-circuit broadcast will take place on site at Mandalay Bay to handle the overflow. The gate is expected to approach $4 million, the third biggest in UFC history, with this match and the long-awaited Wanderlei Silva vs. Chuck Liddell match sharing top billing.
Hughes and St. Pierre have been understandably quiet about their strategy. Both claim it will be a different fight than in Sacramento, where Hughes, 43-5, seemed to have no answer for the riddle of what to do with someone who he couldn't trade with, and couldn't take down.
But on paper, if Hughes can't take St. Pierre down, Hughes' chances are limited to landing a big punch, which can happen, but it's a game that greatly favors St. Pierre, or hoping he can win in the later rounds if St. Pierre's conditioning isn't there.
But what St. Pierre will let out is that he's anything but worried about conditioning. He said his goal is to push the pace hard from the start, because he's supremely confident in his ability to go five rounds, and in the later rounds, that will pay off in his favor.
St. Pierre, 14-2, was unbeaten as a 23-year-old when he faced Hughes for the welterweight title on October 22, 2004, in Atlantic City. St. Pierre, in hindsight, admits he was probably beaten before the match started. Hughes was his personal idol, and when in the cage, questioned whether he even belonged in with him. St. Pierre actually got the first takedown, and cut Hughes open above his left eye. The finish saw Hughes on top with ground and pound, and St. Pierre from the bottom went for a Kimura.
Hughes escaped and spun quickly into an armbar. St. Pierre, not realizing the time, tapped. He actually tapped just three-tenths of a second before the horn sounded to end round one. It was in evaluating the fight that St. Pierre realized he not only belonged in the cage with Hughes, but was capable of beating him.
But even with a win, St. Pierre doesn't envision this as their last rodeo.
"Hughes is sharper than ever and better than he's ever been," he said. "We may meet for a fourth or fifth time. I think we'll both be around."
Hughes, now 34, isn't so sure.
"I don't know if I'll continue or not (after a loss)," said Hughes, who is opening up a 13,500-square foot gym, called Hughes Intensive Training, in Granite City, Ill., just outside St. Louis, in a few weeks, although he said the pressure of getting a new business off the ground has not affected his training. "I'm playing it by ear. I've got a 17-month old girl at home and two boys. I want to spend time with them. I've been smart enough with my money that I don't have to fight 20 more fights. I don't know. I don't want to say two big wins will keep me in the sport, or two losses in a row will make me get out of the sport. I'm concentrating on GSP, not thinking about retirement or anything after."